The Dreaming is a term used by Aborigines to describe the relations and balance between the spiritual, natural and moral elements of the world. It is an English word but its meaning goes beyond any suggestion of a spiritual or dream-related state. Rather, the Dreaming relates to a period from the origin of the universe to a time before living memory or experience – a time of creator ancestors and supernatural beings.
This time is also called the Dreamtime, when the Rainbow Serpent moved across the land and the Wandjina were active in the clouds and skies. (For a more detailed discussion go to our Dreamtime page).
These creator ancestors formed the features of the land and all living things and also set down the laws for social and moral order. The Dreaming, as well as answering questions about origins, provides a harmonious framework for human experience in the universe – and the place of all living things within it.
Each Aboriginal person’s totem and Dreaming is determined by the place in the landscape where the mother feels her first signs of being pregnant. At this place, the unborn person receives the spirit of a totemic ancestor – for example honey ant, possum, goanna or water – and the Dreaming connected with the place.
This harmony between human existence and other natural things was expressed by Silas Roberts, first Chairman of the Northern Land Council, in this way:
Aboriginals see themselves as part of nature. We see all things natural as part of us. All the things on Earth we see as part human. This is told through the ideas of dreaming. By dreaming we mean the belief that long ago, these creatures started human society. These creatures, these great creatures are just as much alive today as they were in the beginning. They are everlasting and will never die. They are always part of the land and nature as we are. Our connection to all things natural is spiritual.
Features of the landscape are the most visible signs of the past activities of ancestral beings. The ancestral beings led lives much as Aboriginal people have for generations, but on a grander scale – and with grander consequences (see Howard Morphy’s book). Waterholes or the entrances to caves resulted where they emerged from the earth. Where they held great battles, hills resulted from their bodies and lakes formed from pools of their blood.
The ancestral beings also left a record of themselves and their actions in the form of a rich variety of art. During their epic journeys, the ancestral beings sang and performed ceremonies, made engravings or paintings on rock and in caves and left sacred objects. In northern Australia, these songs are handed from generation to generation, together with the body designs that were first painted on the chests of the ancestral beings.
Aboriginal peoples living in different parts of Australia trace their origins directly from these great ancestral beings. When present-day Aboriginal people walk through their country, they are continually reminded of the presence of the creator beings. This happens not only through the features of the landscape but also through songs, paintings and ceremonies.
The Dreaming system of beliefs and philosophy has different names depending on the language of the speaker. The Pitjantjatjara and related desert peoples call it Tjukurrpa, the Kimberley peoples call it Ngarrankrni and the Anmatyerre and related peoples call it the Altyerre.
‘Dreaming’ is often used to refer to an individual’s or group’s set of beliefs or spirituality. For instance, an Aboriginal Australian might say that they have Kangaroo Dreaming or Honey Ant Dreaming, or any combination of Dreamings pertinent to their ‘country’. Many artworks are visual representations of the symbols associated with the artist’s dreaming.
For examples of dreaming stories, see the excellent Web site set up by the Australian Museum at http://www.dreamtime.net.au/.
The Alice Springs region has some significant Dreaming sites for the Caterpillar Dreaming (Yeperenye) located in the city and close by. You can visit these comfortably in one day if you stay in Alice Springs Hotels.